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Music Review: Cinderella (2015)

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The Cinderella soundtrack is as lush, romantic and evocative as the film.

From the happy childhood theme for young Ella whose businessman father remarries following the death of her mother to the wicked stepmother music and the sweeping themes for the prince and his beloved, Patrick Doyle’s music is matched to what may be the year’s best picture.

As I wrote in the Cinderella movie review, Kenneth Branagh’s live-action Disney feature is a deeply emotional and thoughtful epic about an innocent child who becomes a woman, the man who falls in love with her at first sight, their losses, trials and injustice by those who betray the best within and what it properly means to be rescued. The music (available through Amazon; click on the soundtrack cover to buy) is only fast and urgent in “The Pumpkin Pursuit” and cues and pieces for other action scenes that play better here than on film. Favorites will depend upon which of the movie’s multiple layers of subplots, themes and pictures resonate, from the father-son moments, which are some of the best ever made in Hollywood, and mother-daughter scenes, to hard, painful scenes of the evil woman who comes to enslave the child. My personal favorites constitute triumphant picture music (“Ella and Kit”, “Valse Royale”, “A Secret Garden”) of the happy couple letting go of the past to embrace a new, self-made future. “You Shall Go” is also glorious, underscoring that the fairy godmother, a beggarwoman, is the antithesis of the hyperfeminine matriarch. “Who is She” brings the ball to the forefront of one’s memory. “The First Branch” tenderly calls upon the film’s parent-child love. “Courage and Kindness” does nicely by the theme of the whole man. A couple of pop songs are included, though, unfortunately, Disney chose not to include the film’s “Lavender Blue” song.

Mr. Branagh worked well with composer Patrick Doyle, whom I first discovered in 2003 with his wistful score for Tim McCanlies’ Secondhand Lions, on Thor for Marvel (2008) and their collaboration also succeeds here. The charming, serious and intricately detailed Cinderella, an essentialized indulgence in old-fashioned romanticism blended with a radical rejection of conservatism, is both rare and original. That Patrick Doyle’s score is as slow, gentle and romantic as the movie makes for a perfect fit. So this is what falling and being in love sounds like.


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Buy the soundtrack for Cinderella (2015)

 

Melissa Manchester at the Grammy Museum

MM-grammy2In her premiere appearance at the Grammy Museum for its program “The Drop”, which highlights newly recorded releases on the distribution date, Melissa Manchester talked about her campaign to make an independent record, over 40 years in music and her artistic philosophy. Then, she took the stage and performed several songs. This was an intense, insightful interview (read my own interview with the singer-songwriter here) with the Grammy Foundation’s Scott Goldman. The sold-out audience at LA Live’s Grammy Museum, filled with musicians, record industry veterans, museum donors and those her daughter Hannah dubbed “fanchesters”, were held by every moment. Afterwards, the Grammy winner signed copies of her new album, You Gotta Love the Life, which she kicked off on Jan. 31 with two sold out shows at Spaghettini and the Dave Koz Lounge.

The event ushers in a whirlwind phase for Manchester, who turns 64 tomorrow and performs her new single, the intoxicating “Feelin’ for You”, with its blistering guitar solo by Keb’ Mo’, on Monday’s episode of Home & Family on the Hallmark Channel. Then, she’s touring again in Florida and the Midwest before appearing on Tavis Smiley’s show on PBS to promote the album, which appeared this week on Amazon’s top ten for jazz albums. The Bronx native, whose new album includes songwriting collaborations with Paul Reiser (Whiplash), the late Hal David and a tune with one of the co-writers of her Grammy-winning hit “You Should Hear How She Talks About You”, returns to New York City for a three-night engagement at 54 Below.

MM-grammy8The campaign to support the release of her 20th album began in earnest, however, in the Clive Davis Theatre at the Grammy Museum, where she regaled the audience with tales of the album’s guest artist Stevie Wonder joining students for an impromptu version of  “Superstition” at Citrus College where she recorded You Gotta Love the Life. There were also tales of working with Hal David, who studied journalism, on how that affected his writing what turns out to be his last lyric and of her singing partner on that tune, Dionne Warwick, and seeing her idol perform for the first time at the Copacabana. There were other famous singer, musician and star stories, too, including a story about working with Ella Fitzgerald, whom Melissa Manchester says made her more fully conscious of musical performance.

What makes her thoughts and answers fascinating is how she integrates each lesson into an intelligent examination of her own work and unfolds her storyteller approach to writing and performing songs, which she says she began to learn after auditioning for a class in songwriting with Paul Simon at New York University when she was 17 when his “Bridge Over Troubled Water”—one of pop’s bestselling singles—was at the top of the charts. Melissa Manchester was one of eight students chosen for Simon’s class, which launched a career of what she calls “deconstructing a song” in order to create each song as an expression. From Simon, whom she says forecast the change from melody-based to rhythm-based songwriting, she said she learned that while the stories may have all been told, the magic lies in the telling.

For example, she explained that she envisioned her rendition of “Walk on By” as a story of a homeless woman dropping off her two kids for the last time, an idea which spun into the audience and made everyone really think about the classic tune.

Thinking is crucial to Melissa Manchester’s approach, she said on Tuesday night. In fact, she told the audience that she teaches her music students at University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music to “not be lazy about your thinking” and “to think as deeply as possible”. Observing that Barbra Streisand slowed down “Happy Days are Here Again”, she noted that it changed the way people perceived how popular music could be performed. She said that her own input for song selection while under contract at Arista Records, where she had some of her earliest success with mogul Clive Davis, such as the 1979 hit “Don’t Cry Out Loud”, was limited. Remembering her earlier days at Bell Records, she contrasted her relationship with Davis by noting that Bell’s president “did this really revolutionary thing…he left me alone.”

Almost as an exercise in self-redemption, You Gotta Love the Life bears the mark of her career theme of personal, first-handed empowerment and, ultimately, liberation. It’s as if the album is an answer to Clive Davis—and even Paul Simon—who told her to stop listening to her muse, Laura Nyro, whom Manchester described as being like a “shaft of light as a beautiful explosion” of music.

MM-grammy3However, reminiscing wasn’t merely waxing nostalgic during Melissa Manchester’s album “drop” at the Grammy Museum. Each remembrance served the purpose of what one can learn from the creative process. She spoke of lessons from Sly and the Family Stone singing the anthemic line “thank you for letting me be myself,” singing with Barry Manilow, Patti Austin and Ashford and Simpson on backup vocals and wandering into the Children’s Television Workshop in Manhattan which was part of Sesame Street. She mentioned working as an uherette and as a parking attendant and talked about discovering from a country music artist the value of meeting an audience following a performance. And she recalled being a founding member of Bette Midler’s backup group the Harlettes and performing at gay bathhouses. She may have been ‘Toots in the middle’ but that didn’t stop her from seeing that Midler basked in the “radiance of her authenticity” while giving gays a sense of belonging before the Stonewall riot in Greenwich Village.

Asked about her earliest memories of music, Melissa Manchester, who said she went to opera rehearsals with her bassoonist father, answered that her first musical memory is of her father playing “Greensleeves” and her twirling around and around, as though in her own world, which she later identified as what she calls “the sonic thermal”. How the Oscar nominee—the only artist to be nominated twice in the Best Song category in the same year—came to think, really think, about writing and singing a song—she doesn’t like “to see the rhyme coming”—is what she delivered with enthusiasm on Tuesday night.

MM-grammy5When asked, Melissa Manchester said that she wants her first independent album to reflect the joy of her life here and now. This came through during the conversation. As if to provide proof of concept without showing off, she then performed several songs, bringing the audience to their feet in unified applause, demonstrating not only that this pioneering artist loves the life; that part of the life which constitutes an audience—her peers, her fans, her fellow singers, musicians and artists—love her, too.

(Click here to buy You Gotta Love the Life as CD or digital download).


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The Grammys (2015)

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The 57th annual Grammy Awards were another showcase of mostly mediocre music and an unabashed advertisement for the host television network, CBS. There were no major breakthroughs, surprises or flubs. The main reason I watched was the enormously popular work by Sam Smith, whom I wanted to see perform, speak and, hopefully, win (which he did—four times).

Smith, who paired for a warm and inviting duet with Mary J. Blige of his introspective hit song about the one-night stand, “Stay with Me”, spoke with humor and rationality. He spoke of the man with whom he fell in love that broke his heart and led to his writing the tune. He also spoke of choosing to stop living for others and instead being true to himself as the turning point in achieving his goal. What he said is especially insightful for one so young and I have every reason to believe he’ll have a great career in music. Read my review of his brave album, In the Lonely Hour, which has sometimes been damned with faint praise for lyrics that are too plain—the more I listen, the more I think his simple, rhyming words are among his top talents—here.

Other Grammy highlights included a spontaneous Paul McCartney grooving to the music, Usher exuding confidence while singing a Stevie Wonder song while accompanied by a harpist, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine singing with a slouching, lackluster Gwen Stefani and carrying the song by himself very nicely and good performances by Beck, Ed Sheeran and Electric Light Orchestra’s founder Jeff Lynne. I wanted to like what Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett were doing while singing about dancing to “Cheek to Cheek” though I thought it was a missed opportunity. I thought Annie Lennox, formerly of Eurythmics, expelled a lot of energy during her performance.

The problem with the show is that it feels overly staged and forced, with these highly pre-ordained and publicized duets and “mash-ups” or mixtures of songs, artists and styles. There’s an excess of publicity pummeling viewers with promotional Tweets and posts and then an excess of performances that rarely live up to the hype. The announcer kept overselling each number during the telecast, forecasting that everyone would be talking about this or that part of the show. The effect is distracting and depleting. I wish they’d just put on a show and let it be, handing out awards here and there. Good music usually comes with some degree of spontaneity.

There wasn’t much that felt unrehearsed tonight, from the see-through dresses to the pedantic, preachy appearance by the president about creating “a society where violence isn’t tolerated” even as he addressed an audience with prominently violent ex-convicts and as he urges compromise with an Islamic dictatorship that subjugates women, homosexuals and freethinkers. The heavy-handed rap song from the movie Selma, prefaced by a religious song by Beyonce, felt preachy, too, with rapper and actor Common ending with a display of his fist to the audience after lecturing them in a rap infused with the idea that the collective matters more than the individual.

Rapper Kanye West appeared in sweat pants, looked down and rapped to an apparent electronic manipulation of his voice. Madonna—introduced as “my bitch” by Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj—did her typical routine, emasculating the faceless male dancers, who were once again denigrated and objectified, which appears to be Madonna’s only artistic statement. She dressed as a matador—surrounded by men dressed as bulls—and, after taking the bulls by the horns, ended up being gored to death by them. This came with Obama’s message urging pop stars to lead by example about violence against women.

The only Grammys theme, if any, to emerge, was faith. “I’m at your service, Lord,” Grammy winner Pharrell Williams announced to no one in particular after doing a gothic or death-themed version of his song “Happy”. Beyonce thanked God and so did many others and there were so many choir singers that it felt at times like watching the Christian Broadcasting Network. I half expected Mike Huckabee or some big-haired evangelist to come out and start slapping and singing right along. Indeed, the infidel was relegated to representation by AC/DC’s performance of “Highway to Hell”. Even an Imagine Dragons song during an ad for Target confessed contrition. No one dared to say Je Suis Charlie.

On the other hand, when Mary J. Blige reached out to Sam Smith as they sang the aching, gospel-tinged “Stay with Me”, they finished the song together, ending in an embrace after the performance. Affirming a common bond, they achieved through music a real sense of amity. This is the 57th annual Grammy awards’ telecast’s most genuine moment. There were others, but this is the music and moment which will stay with me.

 

Three New Interviews

Three new interviews focusing on music and movies are posted. Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, talked about TCM’s Star of the Month, Robert Redford (who’s in Utah kicking off the Sundance Film Festival) in a candid exchange about the elusive movie star (read the interview here).

Melissa Manchester sat down with me to discuss her early years with music industry mogul Clive Davis, the challenges of maintaining a 40-year career in show business and writing, recording and crowdfunding her first new album (You Gotta Love the Life) in 10 years, which debuts next month (read the interview here).

And writer and director Mike Binder (Reign Over Me, The Upside of Anger) gave me an exclusive, in-depth interview about his controversial racially-themed picture, Black or White, starring Academy Award winners Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner, which opens this Friday, January 30 (read the interview here).

Music Review: Melissa Manchester, You Gotta Love the Life

Melissa Manchester’s self-made You Gotta Love the Life, set for release on February 10 (click here to pre-order or buy as CD or download), combines a sense of triumph with grit. The recording artist’s first independent album, which, for purposes of full disclosure, I experienced during recording sessions and in post-production while storytelling for the artist’s social media, revels in that which one earns.

Melissa Manchester does it all on this record: gospel, blues, samba, ballads and pop, everything under the influence of jazz, in a variety of retrospective and introspective classic and original songs. But, after listening to You Gotta Love the Life on CD while driving and on mobile devices many times, I’ve found what I think is its theme. Throughout the winding, even wandering, journey, the mysterious and enduring singer and songwriter proclaims—and reclaims—ownership of her work and life.

Melissa Manchester, whom I recently interviewed about her career, including You Gotta Love the Life (read my exclusive interview about the new album here and my 2012 interview here), writes and sings like an emancipated woman. The Bronx native studied songwriting in New York with Paul Simon as an ingenue, backed up Bette Midler and emerged in the 1970s with such hits as “Come in from the Rain”, “Midnight Blue” and her transformative, anthemic rendition of Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager’s nuanced “Don’t Cry Out Loud”. Here, she produces with Terry Wollman a seasoned and authentic record.

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The 14-song collection begins with the propulsive title track, “You Gotta Love the Life”, a horn-driven jazz pop song that keeps moving as it accounts for what a musical career really means in terms of passion, trade-offs and hard, exhaustive effort. Sharp lyrics heighten the tension as it builds and it’s unlike anything you’re likely to have heard from Melissa Manchester. The second song and the album’s first single, “Feelin’ for You”, which debuted last week at number two on the smooth jazz charts, is a sexy tune with an exquisite guitar solo by Keb’ Mo’. Melissa’s enchanting cover of the 50-year old Ronettes classic, “Be My Baby”, is followed by a catchy jazz duet with Al Jarreau, “Big Light”. Then, comes a breezy duet with Dionne Warwick, “Other End of the Phone”, Melissa Manchester’s only collaboration with the late Hal David, who wrote the lyric. “You Are My Heart”, a wedding song she wrote after the Supreme Court struck down the law forbidding gays from marriage, rounds out the optimistic first half of You Gotta Love the Life.

An Irving Berlin/Cole Porter pairing, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance/From This Moment On”, turns up the heat midway through the album. Other songs include “Claudia”, written by Melissa’s brother-in-law about her sister and featuring Dave Koz on saxophone, the ballad “Your Love is Where I Live”, reuniting her with Tom Snow, co-writer of the Grammy-winning 1982 hit single “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” (with Stevie Wonder on harmonica) and “No There There” which she wrote with Whiplash‘s Paul Reiser. An undulating, rising tune which opens each performance on her tour, “Open My Heart to Your Love”, is a hit-ready highlight.

You Gotta Love the Life gets better and I found more to appreciate with each listen. It slowly acquires a seriousness that’s frankly irresistible, because life is serious and Melissa Manchester writes and sings about life in all its glory, wonder and hardship, fulfilling an ethereal promise with what I would describe as reverence.

She saves the best for last with three final songs. “The Other One” reprises an early Melissa Manchester career theme, expressing with certainty a deeper, more committed, rediscovery of living for her own sake. “I Know Who I Am”, which she co-wrote for Tyler Perry’s 2010 movie For Colored Girls (originally recorded by Leona Lewis) is strong and stirring. A bonus track, “Something Wonderful” (Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein) from The King and I, is a richly guarded and romantic a cappella version which leaves the listener satiated while thinking and wanting more, an achievement and, hopefully, reward for this unique singer and songwriter, whose happily autonomous album is worthy of the effort with which it was obviously made.

Proving that yesterday’s established recording artist can evolve without sacrificing quality, Melissa Manchester’s first independent album is both an invitation to explore and a winking, sobering celebration of show business and life—making You Gotta Love the Life, funded by Melissa Manchester’s fans, a welcome return-to-form after 40 years in popular music.

(Click here to pre-order or buy You Gotta Love the Life as CD or download).


Interview: Melissa Manchester (2015)